Does the current farmer agitation mark a new epoch in Indian history? – K. Singh

There is almost consensus in India that agrarian reform is necessary, but there are sharp differences over the nature, type, scope, and mechanism of the reform. Thus, the legislative reform introduced by the government raised suspicions about the objectives, motives, and procedure followed in enacting them. Farmers and opposition political parties perceive that there has been a gross violation of the standard procedure to be followed in introducing major reforms legislations in the agrarian sector last year.

There is also an opinion that the central government is encroaching upon the state subjects, such as agriculture, regardless of its pronouncement of cooperative federalism. This led to the sharp reaction of the farming community and opposition parties and culminated in intensified farmer agitation, raising potent questions of political acceptance, social desirability, and economic rationality.

The current unrest is unprecedented in the history of people’s movements in India. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and international celebrities have supported the farmers’ right to peaceful protests, while Indian celebrities see it as interference in the internal affairs of India. As the central government pushes the same message against the perceived international conspiracy, the state government in Maharashtra plans to investigate whether celebrities in India have been pressured to counter the tweets of international celebrities. This had led to controversies never before seen in regard to people’s movements.

The Great Betrayal

There have been three major civil movements in post-colonial India. The first was the Total Revolution Movement, also known as the JP Movement, which started in 1974. The movement was eventually diffused when the government invoked a nationwide emergency. It was primarily a political movement led by an amalgamation of political parties against the despotic tendencies emerging in Indian democracy. It resulted in the formation of a federated political party, the Janata Party, which crushingly defeated the ruling party in 1977 but could not govern successfully as internal ideational, if not ideological differences fuelled by personal vanity and the government caused otherwise smooth governance to collapse.

The second major movement was known as the “Anna Movement,” named after its veteran Gandhian leader, Anna Hazare. The movement took place in 2011 and was generated against prevalent corruption in the governing system. This was a non-political movement primarily supported by educated urban youth that transformed into the formation of a new political party, the Aam Adami Party (APP). However, the APP was unable to develop a pan-India presence, partly due to the internal differences that cropped up within the movement. It also helped the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance to seize political power.

The other major movement is the current farmer agitation, which is again non-political and has transformed from a farmers’ agitation to a people’s movement. It is premature to predict whether it will culminate in the creation of a new political party, but it will certainly have a major impact on society, the economy, and politics.

Apart from these three movements, there have been localised movements which also turned into regional political parties. This explains the slogan “We, the people of India,” who have always wholeheartedly supported any movement that backed good governance. However, expectations have also been belied by a short-sighted political class.

From Farmer Agitation to People’s Upsurge

The unrest that has been ongoing for more than six months initially started in the Punjab. It then extended to other regions, due in part to the government’s attempt to campaign against the movement. The government adopted a multi-pronged strategy to try and diffuse the agitation. Initially, it opted for limited oppressive measures, like stopping the farmers at the outskirts of Delhi and employing limited coercive measures such as water cannons, teargas, and erecting barricades on the highways entering Delhi. It also attempted to mobilise pro-legislation farmers to counter the agitation. The subsequent eleven rounds of negotiations started under a trust deficit environment and remained unsuccessful in concluding any agreement.

Farmers were determined to celebrate their Republic Day tractor parade on the outer ring road route of Delhi, and they wanted it to be separate from the official Republic Day celebration in New Delhi. A government petition filed in the Supreme Court to ban the tractor parade was rejected, upholding the farmers’ right to peacefully protest. It also advised the police administration to take appropriate measures in handling the tractor parade on Republic Day. The police administration opened dialogue with farmers to try and cancel or move the parade outside of Delhi. Following several rounds of talks between police authorities and farmers, they agreed to let the parade go ahead with the understanding that both sides would ensure maintenance of law and order. The parade was set to attract global media attention and give farmers a morale boost to intensify their push to repeal the three legislations. They adopted the following slogan: “Kanoon Vapasi Nahin, Ghar Vapasi Nahin” (No Return Home until the Repeal of Legislations). In the end, the tractor parades on 26 January 2021 will be remembered for the outbreak of violence that occurred in the Indian capital.

It appears that the government (or, for that matter, its leaders) have no understanding of the peasant culture and agrarian distress. For the government, agricultural products and land are simply commodities; while for farmers, they are a matter of “identity.” That is why farmers are so emotionally attached to land and agricultural products. Thus, this implies the presence of a conflict between identity/solidarity and commodity (marketable goods with corporate mindset).

In fact, it is an opposition between community and corporate, both culturally and substantively. Indian farming and Dalit communities entered the assertion phase of the history of social change in India like that of the Black community in the United States. Unlike in the US, where the farming community is developed, the Indian farming community does not subscribe to the right-wing agenda. They supported the development of a narrative of political dispensation in 2014 and backed the state’s security narrative ahead of the 2019 elections. But now, they are disappointed with the government.  Hence, the assertion of identity gives a sense of confidence to the farmers who can’t be swayed by political rhetoric and emotive sloganeering. It is an alarm bell for the rulers.

How things can move forward while talks between the government and farmers are in a deadlock is yet to be seen, but it is clear that the agitation is benefitting from mass support which implies that people are again hoping to see the farmer movement transform into a popular upsurge in favour of “bringing better.”

Democracy Under Strain

 The above trends indicate that people were mobilised when they perceived despotic trends in the government. The dialectic between popular forces and structural change is well established in every society.  There is growing realisation that though the electoral system is the major marker of democracy, the people’s mandate for a fixed term should not be construed as a mandate for the arbitrariness of the ruling elite. Democracy is a process of continuous consultation and dialogue between the people and the governance of society, wherein popular forces and structural changes are mutually reinforcing.

The global trend indicates that democracy is under strain in different countries because basic indicators of democratic disposition are being overlooked. The rule of law is becoming rule by law, state security is encroaching upon individual liberty, inequality (both social and economic) is increasing, institutional autonomy is eroding, de-secularization is gaining ground, and composite nationalism is being reduced to sectional nationalism. These are certainly indicators of a “political decay” that is visibly weakening democracy. Indian democracy is not immune to such trends. Society in India is becoming polarised along religious and economic lines on account of government policies. India slipped from 27th position in 2014, to 53rd in the 2020 Democracy Index global rankings. The farmers’ agitation is a manifestation of the polarisation of different sectors of the economy, but every section of the society is rallying behind the agitation. The longer the movement goes on, the stronger it will become.

Global Significance

One can draw several lessons of global significance from this situation. Scholars may get inspired to test their conventional theories of management and to analyse people’s movements through the lens of the “defying experience” theory to try and determine which protest movement is the most peaceful, nonviolent, and efficiently managed. Unlike earlier movements, farmers are apprehensive that the government may instigate riots on the pretext of nationalism and state security, and thus they are taking precautions in such an eventuality. New theories may be constructed out of this experience. Activists can draw the lesson to ensure the success of their movement by changing their strategy and style in light of the collective leadership of the Indian farmer agitation. Moreover, governments should learn that the farmers’ fury turned into a mass upsurge that cannot be encountered by coercive force. It shall have to be more sensitive towards the people’s aspirations and expectations. L.K. Advani, the ruling BJP Patriarch, rightly observed back in 2015 that, “For a politician, to command people’s trust is the biggest responsibility. What morality demands is ‘rajdharma’ and the need to maintain probity in public life.” After all, governance is meant to reconcile diverse and conflicting interests while keeping dominant vested interests away, thereby winning over the people’s trust. The most viable option left before the government therefore, is to repeal the legislation and initiate fresh efforts to prepare comprehensive legislation in the consultation and dialogue with all stakeholders, including the farming community. 

Karori Singh is an Emeritus Fellow and Professor of South Asian Studies and Former Director of the South Asia Studies Centre at the University of Rajasthan in Jaipur, India.

To quote this article, please use the following reference:  K.Singh (2021), “’Does the current farmer agitation mark a new epoch in Indian history?”,

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